At 1:10 am on September 14, a fire broke out in a second floor villa in Incheon. Two young brothers were at home alone in the apartment at the time. One of the two children called 119 when the fire broke out and yelled “Help me!” and hung up before he could give his address. After tracking their phone to identify the location, firefighters were dispatched to the scene 10 minutes later, but the two children were found burned and unconscious. The older brother suffered third-degree burns to his whole body, and the younger brother suffered first-degree burns on his leg. The fire broke out while the children cooked themselves ramen. Their mother had not been home since the day before the accident. Investigations revealed she had been previously indicted without detention by the police on charges of neglect and abuse.
|▲ Right after the fire was put out at the villa where the 'Ramen brothers' lived. (Photo from JoongAng Ilbo)|
In response to the Ramen Brothers Incident and an overall increase in the number of cases involving child abuse and neglect, last month, Heo Jong-sik, a member of the National Assembly's Health and Welfare Committee, proposed a revision to the ‘Child Welfare Act’. The revision would allow the separation of children from their parents if they are suspected of being abused.
In the case of the young brothers, their mother did not take care of them because she suffered from depression. An institution specializing in child protection had filed a request for victim protection in order to separate children from their mother, but instead of separating them, the court allowed the brothers to consult and receive treatment at an institution specializing in child protection for a year. However, due to the spread of COVID-19, the accident occurred at a time when consultations were not being properly conducted.
The need to immediately separate children from their parents, when abuse by a guardian is suspected and if the possibility of being abused again is high, is necessary until the Child Welfare Council can make a decision on their case. Rep. Heo explained, "In non-urgent cases, the investigation of child abuse is based on the principles of 'preferential protection of the original family' and 'respect for the will of the child', but there are limitations in protecting children, when there are frequent reports of abuse. Before a conclusion on the protection measures of the abuse-related deliberation committee is reached, we need to establish a legal basis for immediately separating children from perpetrators.”
Many bills addressing the problems of child abuse have already been proposed by the 21st National Assembly. They all resulted from public outcry after other incidences of abuse were made public. In one case a 9-year-old child was trapped in a suitcase by his mother in Cheonan, and in another a 9-year-old child escaped from his home in Changnyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do after being unable to endure any more abuse by his mother. In total, twenty-four bills have been proposed to revise the Special Law on Punishment of Child Abuse Crimes. Democratic Party lawmaker Ko Min-jung proposed a bill that would separate children from abusers if the abuse was on-going, if they were physically injured for more than two weeks, if they were dispatched to a shelter or if they were found at the scene of abuse more than once. Another bill proposed by Rep. Shin Dong-geun of the same party aims to raise the legal punishment for child abuse resulting in death to "death penalty, life imprisonment or imprisonment of more than 10 years." The government has also revised the sentences for offenders who inflict serious long term harm or permanent injuries on their children, to more than five years. Lee Chul-kyu of the People's Power party proposed a bill that excludes the application of mental and physical punishment reduction regulations if the abuser was in the state of mental or physical disability caused by alcohol or drug problems. Rep. Cho Kyung-tae proposed a bill that would exclude the statute of limitations for prosecutions if the victim child is under 13 years old or he or she has mental disability.
|▲ Mother of the 9-year-old child who died in a suitcase due to child abuse. (Photo from Chungcheong Today)|
After the Ramen Brothers’ case was brought to light, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye said, "We will make sure to come up with and implement measures more actively. In the case of neglect or abuse, there should be legal grounds to separate the children from their parents.” In addition, Kim Mi-ae, a lawmaker of the People's Power also argued that indirect violence such as domestic violence witnessed by children at home should also be considered as an act of abuse. Nam In-soon, a member of the Democratic Party called for the imposition of a fine for negligence if the guardian refuses or obstructs any enforcement measures taken to prevent a child from being abused without justifiable reasons. The revised bill of the Child Welfare Act put forward by Representative Seo Young-kyo of the Democratic Party includes changes to the “Principles of Protecting Households” which helps protected children return to a “safe environment”, not just a “home”.
Every year, more children are at risk of child abuse. The exact number of cases is difficult to determine because most are carried out in secret at home. However, it is clear that the number of children in our blind spot of care has increased due to the implications of COVID-19. We must not only pay attention to children at risk of child abuse, but also take concrete precautions and post-mortem measures to prevent any further damage. No child should be abused. Our society should make constant efforts to put an end to their cries in the dark, even if we only save one child.
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